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Downshifting perceptions: Leaving well-paid jobs for personal fulfilment

Many workers – and their employers – are coming to recognize that, where office time is concerned, maybe less is more.

Five years ago Max Schireson stepped down as CEO of MongoDB, a successful U.S. software firm that had raised $220 million in funding and had assembled an impressive client roster – including the British government and German multinational SAP. Schireson’s reason for “leaving the best job I ever had” was “to be a more involved father.”

“MongoDB deserves a leader who can be ‘all-in’ and make the most of the opportunity,” he informed his stunned staff. “Unfortunately, I cannot be that leader given the geography of the majority of the company in New York and my family in California.”

Many baby boomers (the generation born roughly between 1945 and 1960) are now choosing to “downshift” and quitting well-paid, stressful jobs in order to achieve greater fulfillment – whether this entails working part-time, remotely or as self-employed consultants.

Schireson agreed to create a new role at MongoDB, which would see him working full-time – but “normal full-time” and not “crazy full-time” – in whatever areas the company needed help. But he was adamant that he would swap flying 300,000 miles a year for “more time with the kids, whether making dinner or talking to them or helping with homework.”

These changing attitudes are reflected by the popularity of TED Talks, such as management guru Nigel Marsh’s rallying cry to take control and responsibility of our lives. “If you don’t design your life,” he asserts, “someone else will design it for you, and you may just not like their idea of balance.”

Work smarter, play harder

One person committed to helping companies and individuals get this work-life balance right is Josh Levs, a business consultant, former journalist and author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families and Businesses – And How We Can Fix It Together.

“Downshifting is happening more but it depends on just how progressive companies are,” explains Levs, a leading global expert on fathers in the workplace who quit his own full-time job at CNN following his paternity leave experience at Time Warner. “Too few employers are heeding data that reveals it’s in their own interest to help staff find the right work-life balance. People make mistakes or become stale when they work longer hours.”

Nevertheless, although many bosses still think that workers are more committed if they’re in the office early and leave late – and this applies to small startups as much as to huge multinationals – Levs notes that conventional wisdom is slowly changing.

Some companies – including Virgin Management, LinkedIn, Netflix and Dropbox – now allow staff to take as much time off work as they like. Netflix’s “Reference Guide on our Freedom and Responsibility Culture” explains: “We should focus on what people get done, not on how many hours or days worked. Just as we don’t have a nine-to-five policy, we don’t need a vacation policy.”

While not exactly letting staff drop by whenever they like, PricewaterhouseCoopers is making moves to appeal to the emerging, more nomadic generation and potential older downshifters by focusing on employee autonomy and encouraging them to design a career path around their “interests, goals, and personal situations.” The company also supports telecommuting, job sharing, compressed workweeks and fully paid sabbaticals for older workers.

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Similarly, SAP offers its employees flexible working options, generous overseas relocation packages and volunteer opportunities. The company that recruitment sites LinkedIn and Glassdoor this year named the best company to work for in Germany is reacting to the lifestyle choices of a new generation hooked on travel and social activism – and suspicious of the old nine-to-five, five-days-a-week mindset.

This type of holistic thinking, claims Levs, will lead to an improved bottom line. He cites the example of two of his clients, “a couple of top executives” who both downshifted to four-day working weeks when they became grandfathers. One even managed to retain his full salary. “This kind of downshifting can benefit the entire workplace,” says Levs. “Firstly, these guys are demonstrating trust in their colleagues, which will mean their colleagues are less likely to leave. Secondly, it showed that they were prepared to get their feet wet again, far from the C-suite, spreading confidence throughout the whole workforce.”


The share of millennials who say paid vacation time is their top priority, compared to14% of Generation X and 12% of baby boomers


The share of millennials who are more likely to join a company that lets them work remotely

Time off and flexibility – the new priorities

Societal shifts are already having far-reaching implications for workplace culture. According to research by the IT trade association CompTIA, 63% of millennials are more likely to join a company that lets them work remotely, compared with 57% of Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980) and 41% of baby boomers.

With millennials now already outnumbering baby boomers, savvy companies are constantly experimenting with ways to adapt to employees’ changing needs and aspirations. As well as offering unlimited, paid time off, Dropbox, for example, lets its employees set their own schedules, initiating “No-Meeting Wednesdays” so that staff can have that whole day, uninterrupted, to work from home. The U.S. product review website The Slumber Yard keeps staff motivated by frequently allowing them to work at home, in coffee shops and sometimes even bars for a change of scenery.

Sabine Mueller, CEO of DHL Consulting, believes that within two decades most people will work from anywhere and choose their own hours to do so.

“In general, I’m positive that fewer hours of work will be required,” she says. “Transactional, repetitive tasks will be done by intelligent machines such as robots. Teams will be formed in agile ways to solve problems based on capabilities and interest.”

By the same token, nobody wants to spend all their time at the kitchen counter. A year after downshifting from MongoDB, Schireson started a new job as “executive in residence” at the global, tech-focused investment firm Battery Ventures, a role which lets him continue to have quality time for family, friends, bridge and skiing.

“Some use this type of role as a springboard to start a company or join a startup,” Schireson explains. “Not me. I hope to use my role at Battery as a platform to contribute to interesting startups while maintaining a balanced life.” — Boyd Farrow

Published: October 2019

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